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Taiwan Fight Club

Mixed Martial Arts in Taipei

Taiwan Fight Club. (Photos by David Hartung)

Calling into the ring…Joshua!”

It’s a hot August night in Taipei, and I am about to be beaten up in public.

Standing across the ring  (if you can call a cement square taped on a cement barroom floor a ring) stands a teenage kid with a mean, hungry glint in his eyes. He is pounding his gloves together in anticipation, his message clear:

“You’re going down, white boy.”

My last shred of confidence evaporates.

Where did this madness begin?  Was my strange, self-destructive approach to journalism somehow involved? Did I really need to ask myself that?

I’d heard about the club from some friends in Taipei who told me about a local bar that hosted an amateur boxing night every Saturday. They’d said the participants were generally overworked Taiwanese businessmen letting off steam in a completely controlled environment, with regulation gloves and padded helmets.

I’ve made many a Taiwanese businessman burst into tears simply by refusing to let them pick up the dinner check. How hard can it be, I’d reasoned,  to beat one in a boxing ring and then write a Hemingway-style story about it?

My friend Kyle came along, also intending to fight. True to character, He insisted on belting me several times on the way over.

“It’s for your own good,” he’d say with each blow, seeming to be enjoying himself a bit too much.  “You need to be able to take a punch.”

It was only by sheer luck that we managed to spot the silver letters “VS” inlaid on the round handle of a silver door located in the far corner of the lobby of a nondescript Taiwanese office building. The place was locked up, but the doorman told us to come back after nine.

We got back around nine to find the chest-high VS sign up and the door leading into the basement open. It was still early, and the place was quiet. Kyle sat down and ordered a coke while I scoped the place out. A decent sized basement club, the VS was separated into two rooms. Over to the left of the coat check counter (which doubled as a weigh-in station on fight night) was a large chill-out space complete with low-slung chairs surrounding a dozen or so tables and some plush couches over by the walls.

Behind the bar was a stunningly gorgeous bartender named Jo who was glad to talk up the positive aspects of the club’s most popular event.

“It really isn’t violent at all. Most of the people who compete are just regular people, businessmen mostly, though sometimes women fight, too.” She said, “Amateur boxing helps them to let off some steam.”

Vincent Dai, the club’s manager, told me that the club had been holding Fight Night every Saturday for about six months.

“The event has become increasingly popular with westerners living in Taiwan.” He said “They think it is like that movie Fight Club, with bare knuckles and no rules, but that isn’t at all the case. All our fights are two minutes, opponents are paired by weight class, and we use regulation ten-ounce gloves and padded helmets.”

There was some prize money involved, he told me, a few thousand New Taiwan Dollars for the most wins accumulated at the end of the month. But everything about the club was strictly amateur.

“And most importantly, it stays friendly. No grudge matches.” In addition to the professional referee, the club also employed two bouncers.

“To make sure everything stays friendly,” Vincent assured me.

At around eleven, people began to arrive, and by midnight, the place was packed. I scanned the faces of the patrons, seeing among them not one who looked like they’d ever even owned a tie.

These were no businessmen. These were hardened street punks. My bravado faded like a cheap dye job.

If the sight of my potential opponents shook my poise, the next person I ran into shattered it. He was a stocky, well-groomed American who bore with the look of a man who had broken many a brick in his life. But his appearance wasn’t what scared me. I could tell by the way he was dressed that he hadn’t come to brawl. It was what he said that threw me into a blind panic.

“The mouthpiece isn’t there to protect the teeth, it’s to protect you from biting your tongue in half when you get hit in the jaw…I’ve seen it happen. Very hard to stop the flow of blood from the tongue.”

Bill (full name withheld by request) was a lawyer and former kickboxing champion. He’d heard about the club, and wanted to see if the place was as colossally stupid as it sounded to a man with years of experience in competitive fighting.

“Even in a controlled situation, with experienced fighters, padded rings, and professional referees, injuries are bound to happen.” He said gravely “Here, a barroom situation with concrete floors, no mouthpieces, and untrained combatants. It’s a disaster waiting to happen.”

It was too late for me to back down, so Bill offered to bring me upstairs for a quick sidewalk sparring session, an offer I gladly accepted. He drilled on a few basic blocks and jabs, all the while giving me useful pre-brawl tips.

“Keep relaxed, keep a good posture, and keep your mouth shut so you don’t bite your tongue off.”

After a half an hour, I was confident of being able to survive this thing in one piece, and not much else. We headed back downstairs to find that the dance floor had been cleared and a makeshift boxing ring had been marked with white tape on the floor. The air was charged as the referee pushed through the crowd and began the big wind up. He laid out the rules in Mandarin and Taiwanese.

“No hitting below the belt. No elbows, knees or feet. No back of the head blows. Cross the white line once, a warning! Twice, disqualification!”

The Ref turned to address the crowd.

“I see that we have some foreign friends signed up tonight. Very good! We love watching our foreign friends fight here at the VS club, don’t we?”

The crowd cheered wildly, and I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up as the first combatants were called into the ring.

The first contest was between two young, scrawny teenagers who looked like they were barely out of high school. They didn’t “box” so much as flail wildly. I began to feel encouraged, figuring that I could have handled either of them. As I was contemplating this, the referee spoke up again.

“Uh-oh, our next match-up is between a foreigner and a Taiwanese – the best kind of fight!”

Which brings us back where we came in.

Calling into the ring…Joshua!”

The crowd is screaming as I press my way into the taped-off ring. One of the bouncers fits me into a sweaty pair of gloves and sparring helmet. I size up my opponent. He is taller than me, with a vicious look making previous two fighters seem downright angelic. The bell rings. I gulp. He snarls and runs at me swinging.

The strobe lights are blinding. Forgetting everything I’ve been told, I just try and block my face. A punch lands on the top of my head. I retaliate and miss. Another hits me on the jaw, rattling my teeth through the mouthpiece.

I am not having fun.

More punches hit my head, hit the back of my neck. I start grappling my opponent blindly.

The referee pulls us apart.

“You OK?” He yells.

I remember Bill’s last bit of advice: “If you’re clearly outclassed, don’t wait to tap out!”

I am clearly outclassed.

My opponent is declared “winner by surrender” and given his prize: A large beach towel with the Tiger Beer logo. I am handed a thin washcloth with the same logo and slink back into the crowd.

It is up to Kyle to regain some lost prestige for Taipei’s foreign community. Still breathing heavily, I watch as he matches the other fighter blow for blow before pushing him out of the ring. The crowd seems less than pleased.

Kyle emerges clutching his prize beach towel.

“I watched the other fights and realized it was more of a sumo match than anything else. So I just let him tire himself out before pushing him out of the ring. It hurt like hell, but was worth it.”

The fighting over, a floor show featuring bartenders juggling bottles of flaming alcohol begins. It seems like a bad idea in a crowded basement filled with alcohol, drunks, and no fire exits. I say goodnight to Kyle, still basking in the afterglow of victory, and leave the bar with teeth, tongue, and self-esteem more-or-less intact.

I’d done what I’d come to do, and if I didn’t get the story I intended to get, it was only because the actual facts had intervened. There’d been no thrill of victory, and no real agony in defeat. Only a reminder of what I should have known all along.

I was too pretty to be a prizefighter.

~~~

Taiwan Fight Club ran originally as Late Night Taipei Smackdown and is one of 33 stories featured in Vignettes of Taiwan.